June 13, 1381. After years of political unrest in England, the people rise up against the ruling classes and storm the gates of London in the Peasants’ Revolt.
It’s mid-June 1381 in London, England.
Inside the Tower of London – a royal fortress in the heart of the city – a man kneels before an altar, muttering prayers. Simon Sudbury is the Archbishop of Canterbury – the leader of the English Church. As he prays, Simon’s clasped hands turn white at the knuckles and his voice trembles with fear.
In the distance… Simon hears a loud crash, followed by the sounds of raised voices getting closer.
Simon crosses himself and murmurs a soft invocation, begging God to protect him.
A few weeks ago, there was a popular uprising in England; peasants rebelled against the greed and corruption of the ruling class. Above all, the uprising is caused by anger over the implementation of a new poll tax, an unpopular measure introduced by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury.
Now the peasants have breached the walls of the Tower of London, where they know the Archbishop is hiding. Simon’s prayers become increasingly desperate as the angry voices grow louder and louder…
The deafening crash of the chapel door being forced open tells Simon that his time is up.
He prostrates himself on the cold flagstones, begging for mercy. But these peasants have suffered too long under crippling taxes and meager wages; the time for clemency has passed.
Two rebels stride forward, their footsteps echoing through the lofty chapel.
They haul Simon to his feet and march him outside. Then, they lead him to a grassy mound outside the Tower... where they throw him onto the ground.
Simon pulls his priestly robes over his head, hiding his face from his tormentors, who laugh and jeer at the Archbishop’s fall from grace.
One of the rebels steps forward and rips off Simon’s robes. Now the Archbishop lies cowering in the dirt, clad only in his undergarments.
Another rebel unsheathes a sword, raises it high above his head… and brings it down on Simon’s neck.
Archbishop Simon Sudbury will be one of several high-profile victims of the Peasants’ Revolt, a popular uprising that shakes England during the so-called “bloody summer” of 1381. Amid growing political unrest, aggrieved members of the lower classes will rampage through London, demanding greater liberties and lower taxes from England’s King, Richard II. In the end, the Peasants’ Revolt will ultimately be suppressed; its leaders will be rounded up and hanged. Still, the impact of the uprising will resonate for centuries to come. In the years that follow, landowners will treat their workers more fairly, and lawmakers will hesitate before introducing unfair taxation, all fearing a repeat of the Peasants’ Revolt, which set the city of London ablaze on June 13th, 1381.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is June 13th, 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt.
It’s June 1348 in southern England – thirty-three years before the Peasants’ Revolt.
On a warm summer’s day, in the town of Melcombe Regis, a merchant ship docks in the bustling harbor. Weather-beaten sailors throw ropes around mooring posts, before lowering the gangway and unloading the ship’s cargo. After the long voyage from France, these grizzled sea dogs are tired and thirsty. They work quickly, their minds drifting inland, where flagons of frothy ale await them at the local tavern.
A young deckhand reaches down to lift a crate from the hold. But as he does, his hand brushes against something furry and warm. The deckhand yelps as several mangy rats emerge from between the crates. He cringes with disgust but gets back to work.
A few moments later, the deckhand becomes aware of an itchy discomfort on the side of his hand. He looks down to see that a tiny, red bump has appeared in the place where he touched the rat. He thinks to himself, “those filthy rodents must have fleas”. But he shakes it off and reaches down for another crate.
Over the course of the next five years, 25 million Europeans, including this young deckhand, will die from a gruesome and aggressive disease, known as the bubonic plague. The affliction is caused by a harmful bacteria found in fleas and carried by rats, which in turn pass it on to humans. Black, pus-filled boils cover the bodies of its victims, giving rise to the plague’s best-known moniker: the Black Death.
Before long, corpses pile up in the streets, and the stench of rotting flesh hangs over England’s towns and villages. By the time the pandemic ends, it has claimed as much as 50% of the English population.
The majority of those killed are peasants, leaving England with a sudden and dramatic labor shortage. And in the wake of the plague, as demand for their services increased, laborers begin charging more. Soon, the profits of landowners begin to erode, and many face the threat of bankruptcy. Fearing a total economic collapse, English lawmakers introduce emergency legislation designed to fix wages at pre-plague levels. These laws are enforced by royally-appointed Justices of the Peace, many of whom are landowners who stand to gain from the new legislation. But to many laborers, it seems the royal government is brazenly helping the rich at the expense of the working poor.
For centuries, Medieval England has operated as a feudal system, in which tenant farmers – known as serfs – rent land from local lords in exchange for loyalty and protection. In the past, serfs were prohibited from leaving the estate without the lord’s consent. But now, thanks to the labor shortage, members of the working class suddenly find themselves with more opportunities and more bargaining power. Many serfs begin breaking their contracts, leaving their estates, and going off in search of higher wages.
But just as the English peasantry gets its first taste of independence, a war abroad puts a strain on the royal coffers, forcing the government to introduce a radical new tax, and sparking a fresh confrontation between the peasants and the ruling class.
It’s November 1380, seven months before the Peasants’ Revolt; and Parliament has convened in Northampton, in central England.
The faces of the men are grave as Archbishop Simon Sudbury stands to address the chamber. Sudbury is not only the head of the English church; he is also the Lord Chancellor, responsible for overseeing the nation’s judicial system. Today, Sudbury has come to deliver bad news. For over forty years, England has been engaged in a seemingly endless war with France. The so-called Hundred Years’ War has claimed countless lives – with neither side gaining a clear advantage. The expense of maintaining an English army in France has become a crippling burden for England’s king, Richard II. The government desperately needs to find a source of income, or face economic catastrophe. Confronted with this possibility, Archbishop Sudbury proposes a radical new tax – to be imposed on every subject over the age of fourteen, regardless of an income or property.
The poll tax – as this new levy is known – is immediately met with a backlash from the working poor. In March 1381, the King appoints royal commissioners to travel through the countryside enforcing payment of the poll tax. But many peasants refuse to cooperate. And instead, they take up arms, organizing themselves into rebel militias, and preparing to fight.
It’s May 30th, 1381, one week before the Peasants’ Revolt.
An English nobleman named John Bampton travels through the county of Essex. Bampton is a royal commissioner – tasked by King Richard II to interrogate villagers over widespread evasion of the now infamous poll tax. On this sunny summer’s day, Bampton and his constables ride into the village of Fobbing. There, Bampton gathers the villagers to question them over apparent shortfalls in their tax records.
One of the residents, a man named Thomas Baker, steps forward from the throng. He tells Bampton that they’ve already paid their fair share of taxes and that they have no intention of paying anymore. When Bampton orders his constables to arrest Baker, the villagers rush to his defense. And a fight breaks out. Three of Brampton's constables are killed in the melee. And soon, Bampton himself flees to London, bringing news of the rebellion with him.
Word of the incident quickly spreads through the villages of southeast England. In the counties of Essex, Kent, and Suffolk, angry townsfolk attend meetings where they commit themselves to this new uprising. Soon, bands of rebels roam the countryside on horseback, attacking local officials and torching lordly estates. The peasants’ demands are clear: they want to abolish the feudal system that keeps them locked in exploitative contracts. They want an end to the unjust poll tax. And they want a repeal of the labor laws that put a cap on wage increases.
But while they’re united in their ambition, there is little actual unity between the peasants. Many yearn for a strong leader; someone to step forward and take charge, lest the revolt fizzles and dies.
On June 7th, several thousand rebels converge on the town of Maidstone. The revolt is poised on a knife's edge. For the past week, disorganized bands of rebels have been riding through Kent, Essex, and Suffolk – attacking tax officials, kidnapping sheriffs, and recruiting more peasants to the cause. Now the Kentish rebels have gathered in Maidstone to plot their next move.
Standing amidst the crowd is a blacksmith named Wat Tyler. Like all of the peasants gathered here, Tyler has grown resentful of the pomposity and greed of the ruling classes, who live in luxury in their manors, while he and his fellow workers toil away in poverty. Tyler understands the anger of his fellow workers – but he also sees that senseless violence will achieve nothing. Tyler believes the only way to make change is to compel the powers that be to take action.
So Tyler stands on an upturned barrel and makes his voice heard above the commotion. He proposes a march on London, where the rebels will present their demands to King Richard II himself. The crowd roars its approval, and with Wat Tyler leading the way, the peasants march for the capital.
The first major town the rebels come to is Canterbury; the home of the Archbishop, Simon Sudbury - one of the rebels’ primary enemies. Sudbury introduced the poll tax. And he’s a powerful figure in the King’s royal council, one of the richest men in the country. Sudbury represents everything the peasants loathe about the ruling classes. So Tyler and his rebels storm Canterbury Cathedral, hoping to find Sudbury and murder him. But Sudbury is not to be found. The Archbishop has fled to London, where he is taking refuge in the Tower. Thwarted but not discouraged, the rebels rampage through Canterbury, brutally killing anyone whom they suspect of being associated with Sudbury and the despised royal council.
The following morning, on June 11th, the rebels continue toward London, armed with sticks, battle axes, swords, and bows. Wat Tyler gallops at the vanguard, urging his men on. Finally, after two days, the walls of the capital city loom into view – imposing and sinister in the hazy summer dusk. The rebels set up camp at Blackheath, a grassy common just south of the city, and prepare for an attack, set to take place tomorrow.
That night, Wat Tyler inspects the camp. He senses that morale is low and that his men are road-weary and losing conviction in the face of their greatest challenge yet. So Tyler approaches a man who he thinks can help. John Ball is a preacher from Kent, a demagogue famed for his sermons railing against the privileged upper classes. Tyler asks John to address the rebels and to lift their dwindling spirits.
John Ball agrees and stands on a hill before the assembled crowd – who by now number as many as 60,000. He clears his throat, and proceeds to shake the earth with his now famous words, saying: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning, all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.” Ball continues, proclaiming: “For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, He would have appointed who should be bond, and who should be free.” John Ball’s words are met with deafening cheers, and they will stoke the flames of rebellion inside the hearts of the assembled peasants. Their conviction will be renewed, and Wat Tyler will lead his army to the city gates, where they will demand an audience with the King.
It’s June 13th, 1381.
Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, stands on the bank of the River Thames, watching as a flotilla of royal barges approaches across the muddy water. On board, the middle barge, his crowned head visible beneath the fluttering royal standard, is England’s 14-year-old king, Richard II.
Days ago, the King and his royal council retreated to the confines of the Tower of London worried about the approaching peasants. With the majority of his soldiers stationed in France, King Richard didn’t like his chances of crushing the revolt by force. So he sent envoys to try to negotiate with the rebels at Blackheath. But Wat Tyler refused the envoys. Instead, he demanded an audience with the King.
Reluctantly, Richard agreed. And the King has sailed here to the banks of the River Thames, as promised. But now, instead of meeting with the rebel leader face to face, the King orders his flotilla to stay in the middle of the river so the King can negotiate across the water; from a safe distance.
When Tyler realizes Richard is too afraid to disembark, he roars with contemptuous laughter. Then he turns to his men and tells them that the King has declined a proper negotiation, leaving them no choice but to storm the city. Soon, King Richard’s flotilla turns and sails back to the Tower beneath a hail of jeers from the belligerent rebels.
And bolstered by the King’s retreat, Wat Tyler and the rebels surge across London Bridge and quickly push inside the city walls. They seek out the houses of wealthy lawmakers and noblemen and burn them to the ground. Then they continue on to the Tower of London, where they find and execute the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury.
At the Tower and elsewhere, in the city, the marauding rebels overpower the King's men. So the following day, King Richard II finally meets with Wat Tyler at Smithfield, just outside the city. There, Tyler presents the peasants’ demands of lower taxes, fairer wages, and greater civil liberties. But while Tyler stands undefended, the Mayor of London - a man named William Walworth - leaps forward from the crowd and stabs the rebel leader.
The attack proves not only to be fatal to Wat Tyler but to the Peasants’ Revolt. Shortly after his killing, the King’s men regroup and successfully crush the rebellion. Ultimately, the Peasants’ Revolt fails in its immediate aims, but in the decades that follow, the feudal system that kept England’s peasants in subjugation will gradually erode until it disappears entirely. And for this reason, the Peasants’ Revolt, a failure in its time will be remembered as the first great workers’ uprising in English history; a momentous outpouring of anger that reached its climax when Wat Tyler led the charge on London, on June 13th, 1381.
Next on History Daily. June 14, 1922. Warren G. Harding becomes the first US President to have his voice transmitted live over the radio.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.